Northampton were forced to dig deep before subduing Ulster in a hard-fought Heineken Cup quarter-final at stadium:mk.
The decisive try was delivered by scrum-half Lee Dickson in the 56th minute, but it was a score created by the vision of Ben Foden and Chris Ashton. The England pair swapped passes down the left touchline to clear a path to the whitewash that enabled Saints to reclaim the lead in a finely-poised encounter.
Prop Soane Tonga'uiha crossed in the first half while fly-half Stephen Myler kicked 13 points to secure Saints' return to Milton Keynes for their semi-final against Perpignan. The tide turned with Dickson's try, but up until that point Ulster had matched the 2000 European champions blow for blow in a tense encounter.
Roared on by 5,500 supporters in the stadium:mk record crowd of 21,309, the Magners League's second place team reacted wonderfully to conceding an early lead by crossing through Ireland winger Andrew Trimble. With Simon Danielli a menacing presence on the other wing and Ian Humphreys – who kicked eight points – pulling the strings at fly-half, Ulster looked capable of causing an upset.
Had full-back Adam D'Arcy not dropped the ball with the line at his mercy shortly after Dickson had crossed, it may have been a different story. But instead they ran out of steam in the final quarter to ensure their first visit to the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup since winning the tournament in 1999 ended in heartache.
Shortly before kick-off Ulster had received a message from Rory McIlroy, who wrote on his Twitter account: "Good luck @UlsterRugby!! Watching here in Augusta. Let's do the double!!!"
But the Masters hopeful from Northern Ireland must have averted his eyes in horror as they made the worst possible start, initiated by Trimble's spilt catch five metres out.
Seizing the chance to draw first blood, Saints won a free-kick at the ensuing scrum with Lee Dickson driving to within inches of the whitewash. Several thrusts later Tonga'uiha spotted Ulster were short on numbers at the ruck and drove straight through the middle, placing down the ball with an outstretched arm.
The match resumed at a punishing pace after Myler had landed the conversion, with both sides tearing into the collisions. Humphreys kicked two penalties in quick succession and Ulster went close to adding a try of their own, but their fly-half's scoring pass to Danielli was deemed forward by Romain Poite.
Saints threatened when Ashton created space for James Downey before the action was temporarily interrupted by an exchange of aerial ping pong. The kicking over, Saints resumed their assault on the whitewash with prop Brian Mujati spilling forward as he attempted to power through a group of white shirts.
Ulster's defence was strong and the 2000 Heineken Cup champions were struggling to secure quick ball, their frustration growing when Myler missed a penalty. It was then Saints' turn to crack with Danielli doing the initial damage when a set move sent him hurtling into space.
One phase later Ulster had an overlap with backs facing forwards, but appeared to have blown the chance when Ruan Pienaar's pass dribbled along the floor. The move continued, however, and Trimble was on hand to race over with Humphreys converting before Myler kicked his first penalty on the stroke of half time to peg the deficit back to 13-10.
Saints levelled through Myler eight minutes into the second half, ratcheting up the tension of a match which looked impossible to call.
Just when they needed it most, Northampton conjured the piece of magic required to reclaim the lead in the 56th minute. Dickson ran in the try, but it was the slick interchange and clever support play of Ashton and Foden created the opportunity with Downey supplying the scoring pass.
Barely had Myler converted before Ulster were on the front foot in a passage of play they will live to regret. First Humphreys was held up inches short of the line and then, having won a penalty and looked wide, D'Arcy knocked on when a try was his for the taking. To rub salt into the wound Myler booted a penalty and Saints strangled the life out of what was left of the game.